Thursday, 2 May – Great singing, a history lesson, and a potluck

I was not feeling great about my visit to the San Francisco Labor Chorus. For one thing, I was late. I had spent so much time talking to Julene, I suddenly realised I had not very much time to get there on a very wandery 43 bus which roamed the San Francisco Hills, delightful on a day when I wasn’t in a hurry. I dashed around the campus of the college trying to find room 214 and was full of excuses and embarassment for being 15 minutes late. I flew through the door to discover – a potluck. A party! As the day after International Workers Day on 1 May, there was a celebration. I fill my plate and we sing The Internationale (and guess who is the only one who doesn’t know it, oh the shame.)


Chorus member Larry,  gets up and tells us about the origins of May Day, how it evolved around the world. There was a discussion about what marches there had been in the Bay area. Again to my shame I had seen a parade on Market Street on 1 May but not connected the two. I did not make this fact known to the chorus.

We warm up. They have a gig on Saturday and Pat, the Musical Director and pianist wants to run through all the numbers.

Pat:                         Would you like to stand up?

Chorus member:     No thanks

Pat takes no offense and they remain seated. They begin singing. It’s wonderful. It’s powerful, moving stuff. They sing in four parts. Like several of the choruses I have come across they have acknowledged that to find older male tenors is almost an impossibility whereas women’s voices have dropped considerably by this time.  So the tenor section is mixed men and women.


Pat is a wild, passionate conductor. Just as she accepts comment from the chorus, she gives comment back:

Pat:       So I’m singing: “what’s a union worth?” and I’m getting mnyah mnyah mnyah.  I          need to get something back! Altos, join the sopranos on that please.”

The choir has been going about 15 years. They are an old choir because they got old in the choir and the politics are important to them. Someone tells me later that if someone doesn’t show up, they get phoned, “Where are you, what’s wrong, we miss you?”

There seem to be a lot of New York voices. It turns out two of them are “red diaper ” babies (parents who were communists). It is quite simply the most democratic chorus I have experienced ever. There is real ownership of the chorus and throughout the rehearsal people make suggestions which are acted on or at the very least, discussed.

We break up for the night. But not without the song they always, always sing which just happens to be one of my favourite songs in the whole world. Pat pounds it out on the keyboard and we sing our way though at least 6 verses:

Irene… good night…….. Irene…….. good night

Good night Irene, Good night Irene, I’ll see you in my dreams.

And then a ride home with some of the group members and a very kind man who drives us all over San Francisco, thus avoiding the 43 bus.  Perfect end to a perfect day.


Thursday, 2 May – What We’ve Been Waiting For!

Everyone who works in community arts and has watched a group or an individual change as a result of an arts project knows this frustration. You try to explain: “He was so depressed. He wouldn’t look at anyone. Now, he’s made friends, he sings, he’s happy.” Your friends say “Oh that’s nice.”  Ah but you can hear them think.  That is one individual. It’s a cute story but it doesn’t mean anything.Image

So welcome to Julene Johnson, Associate Professor from the University of California. She received a Fulbright Scholarship and went to study a tiny community in Uvelskela, Finland where there are 6 senior choirs – count em – SIX! and virtually no depression. And let’s be honest. A winter in Finland? Almost no light? And yet! No light  but no depression? = lots of singing!

So now Julene Johnson has returned and has put together an amazingly complex project with the support of the National Institute of Aging and other partners, 12 senior centers from diverse communities in the San Francisco Bay Area, musicians and choir directors from each community and is asking:


12 choirs will start for one year in a staggered process in various communities. The first two will be in the Mission District, and the choruses will be run by Martha Rodriguez and Jennifer Peringer. The third and fourth will be African American choruses run by a local choir director. Each choir is from a different diverse part of the area, with a director and musician from that area. Each participant will be monitored at various stages of the process in terms of their health and mental health. Within the budget is a “Health Economist.”

Health Economist!  You wot? I, the artist wonder what this is about. Julene explains. “The health economist can tell us, ‘what does one older person falling cost? What does a visit to the doctor cost? We know and will prove that older adults who sing in choirs for 12 months have higher ratings of health, fewer doctor visits and falls, less medication and loneliness – and therefore, running a choir is saving them money.'”

The choirs will be started staggered every six months. At the end of five years an enormous amount of data will be available for interpretation. This is exciting news for all of us who work in community arts. I’m looking forward to standing confidently at parties and throwing out positive statistics that will have friends gasping in amazement. Better, I’m looking forward to starting more senior choruses.




1 May – Talking to Marie Popek, one of the Solera Singers

 Singing gives me so much joy. So much joy. God guided me. I was in a car accident, I was lost. I looked for a long time. I’m a little blind, a little deaf. Someone said to me, go to Community Music Center! It’s really nice!

I’m so proud, singing. From there I joined different groups, and I started my own group, A Chinese group. My father was Portuguese, my mother Chinese/Japanese.

Every morning I wake up and I think:                

                        “Today I’m in pain –   but tomorrow I’ll be singing “



1 May – The Solera Singers – singing like fine wine

ImageThe team of Martha Rodríguez-Salazar and Jennifer Peringer are leading another senior singing group, this time entirely in Spanish, in a public performance. They are “The Solera Singers” and Martha describes”solera” as the process of warming grapes so that when wine is made it will be good. Aging the wine makes it particularly good.

They are in a beautiful church, St Francis Lutheran Church, at the top of the Castro, the gay district in San Francisco. There are 29 women and 1 man (!) who perform a set of 11 numbers, again arranged by Jennifer into two part harmony.



Each song is introduced and explained by Martha to their enthusiastic audience of friends, families, and seniors from the church’s lunch club. There are slow, heartbreaking numbers and livelier, festival numbers. We are invited to dance in the aisle, but the church is a little overwhelming and no one is tempted.

Once again as with the 30th Street Chorus on Monday, there is a great joy here. These are seniors who are passionately in love with what they are doing. Although they hold their words most know them and sing with great verve and energy.

Later I eat downstairs with in the $2 Senior luncheon. There is an interesting mix of the Solera Singers, a few locals, and some older gay men. At my table, one of the Solera women is trying to persuade one of the gay men to join.

We had one man today!” she says indignantly. “We need more men!” “Not really my scene” he says “Now if you were doing some Judy and Liz numbers I might be tempted”.Image

Monday 29th April Singing and Swinging Bilingually

Everyone tells you San Francisco is amazing and they are right. It’s beautiful to look at, to be in, the weather is never too outrageously, unbearably hot or cold, and my favourite thing – it’s an artist’s dream. I came here with very little set up. Not my fault: whereas people on the east coast were happy to book appointments, they would just say – “Sure,  see you in May!” But already I’ve met people who have ideas about where I should be going, who I should be listening to, interviewing, watching. In fact I already have too many things and I’m having to make choices. Who would have thought.

So I’m in love with San Francisco. But as a new girl occasionally I time things wrong so when I finally got to the Mission District today, the largely Spanish District in the south of the city, I was running to make it to the session. “Can you tell me where the singing is?” I gasped for breath when I finally made it to the 30th Street Senior center.

“Singing? No singing”.                 “No singing?”

Have I got the wrong place? I look at the blackboard. ““El Coro”

“Ah! El coro! Est aqui!” I tear down to the end of the hall and find El coro, the chorus, and waiting for me Martha Rodriguez and accordian player Jennifer Peringer and the 30th Street Singers, a group of 24 women and 2 men. They are discussing their performance of the other day in front of a funder. How did the group think it went? “I’m sure after they hear us they will fund us”. All agree and are very proud of their performance. They discuss costumes, and there is some discontent. Jennifer wonders if it’s possible to make a project, putting words onto the blue scarves that are their costumes?  The end of the sessions looms and the idea of a pot luck. Everyone is very excited about the pot luck.  Their oldest member is in hospital. She is 94, and Martha would like to record one of their songs so she can hear it in hospital.Image

All agree to this. I’m aware suddenly that Martha is employing the most subtle of techniques with this group. She is literally repeating everything twice, in Spanish and English. It’s very quick and almost unnoticeable. “I don’t even know I’m doing it now,” she tells me later. “Some speak no Spanish, some speak no English. It’s not a problem. I was born in Mexico and both languages are there for me.”


There are two groups, a high group and low group. Some read music, some don’t. Nothing is a problem. It’s an easy, fun class, and it’s clear they love and trust her. Martha doesn’t push them to learn the music, although some have. She teases them. “Very nice harmony, but I want it in unison!” 

Martha says both she and Jennifer have been asked if they are married on multiple occasions.   “Yes we are, to each other!” I asked how the group react to that. “Not very well. It’s a very conservative group. But they get used to it.”


Friday 26 April – Going to San Francisco wearing bedbugs in my hair

This week of observing amazing choral work in Northampton has had an underlying, more disturbing sequence of events. The last leg of my Fellowship journey is in San Francisco, a place I only know in legend and song. This week when not at sessions, I began to shape up the San Francisco time, recontacting people and making new connections. I idly looked up reviews of my digs.

Holiday places get reviewed in England but they are along the lines of:

 “view wasn’t great….breakfast a bit boring…dog hair on the sofa”

Hotel reviews have become a vicious, virulent art form in the US. A few from my temporary 10 day home (Travel Lodge) read as follows:

I have one word for this place – FLEE!…bedbugs…thin walls…the drug dealers and hookers only stop plying their trade at 4 am…bedbugs…cockroaches…they make black customers pay in cash…windows open from the outside…bedbugs…

The rating was 9 out of 60 and rated poor – fair. After a sleepless night during which  my head itched incontrollably, I cancelled my reservation and set about finding my new, fabulous digs….

yes…well…hm.   Do bedbugs in a 2011 review mean the hotel still has them? “A rough area of town” – well, I live in Camden, that’s not exactly the most gentile of areas. Define rough. How rough is rough?

I also quickly realize that there is a line above which lies bankruptcy and below which lies bedbugs and that some people are seriously on the make. I looked at one room in the morning. Three nights for $450 had jumped to $1000 by the evening by the time they had added tax, and cleaning (over 100 quid for cleaning for 3 nights? Please!)

An enterprising friend of mine asked if I had considered “sofa surfing”. Sofa surfing!!!! Am I a sofa surfer? Was I ever a sofa surfer? Possibly, but those days have long gone.

At the last minute a friend of my sisters has offered digs for a few nights while I sort myself out. She has even generously offered to drive me round to look at places. I will obviously bring a magnifying glass, rubber gloves and Lysol spray.

Thursday 25 April – The Love Fest that is Young@Heart

Before rehearsal I am speaking to Bob Cilman, founder, Musical Director and harmonica player extraordinaire for Young@Heart. I tell him what people in the chorus have been saying to me about Young@Heart: they speak of it like a second family; they wonder what they would do without it in their lives. “Well, it’s my favourite 4 hours of the week too” he says. I tell him many of the groups I know have a fairly set repertoire that they repeat. “We do new songs ALL THE TIME” he says. “Their repertory is incredible. They keep rising to the challenge.”Image

I ask how they learn new songs. “The band hears the original, and the lead singer. But we want to make it our own so encourage them to stop listening as soon as they can. Everyone gets a copy of the words and hears the music, there is no music on paper. Occasionally people throw in a harmony and if it works we keep it and add to it.”

The rehearsal today is extraordinary. It’s clear after Bob having a quiet word on Monday about upping the stakes that people have gone home and really swotted up on the words, be they Flemish or English. The level of performance has gone up quite a few notches, almost to performance standard.

Gloria is the shy woman who on Monday was asked to wear her song like a sweater. It’s clear she’s been working hard at home and it has paid off.

If I needed you….. would you come to me

            Would you come to me…for to ease my pain

Gloria is tiny (4’10”) and her singing partner is an enormous 6’2”. They sing it again and get a clap from the group. He hugs her. “That was wonderful” he says. She blushes with joy.

They sing through songs they know well, just to keep them fresh. Tension gone, it’s all fun, it feels less like a rehearsal and more like a joyous party, a love fest.

As rehearsal ends we hear about Patricia, the woman of 88 who told the story in Roy’s drama class yesterday. She has broken her collarbone. Despite the strength and power of Young@Heart, I am reminded of the things you can’t forget with a group whose youngest member is 73.